How to Plot a Short Story

Part 5 in How to Write a Short Story

Trixieliko  on Pixabay

Trixieliko on Pixabay

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all plot ever should be. It is human desire to let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic.” - Ray Bradbury

This is one way to look at the plot. Based on what Bradbury is saying here we can conclude he’s a discovery writer. Outlining writers, however, usually start with plotting.

I start with the plot too, but I usually let my story and ideas drive me. So this is where the ‘dynamic’ plot comes in. 

Sometimes the plot changes. Usually, I take a few different directions, but the final destination is set. Other times, however, I come up with something completely new. Either way is fine. Give yourself some space!

I like to view plotting a short story as setting up chapters for a manual to achieve the desired outcome. But some people never open the manual and just try out different stuff to reach the same result. It’s up to you!

My advice is: tie in discovery writing with outlining. Outline your plot roughly and use it as a changing skeleton. Through discovering your story and characters, change the outline of the plot accordingly.

Do know how to plot your short story? I’ve assembled tips from authors like Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Anne Lamott, Hugh Howey, and Brandon Sanderson. Naturally, I touch upon my process and what I’ve learned from two years of writing short stories.

Here Comes Plotting

“Plot is like creating an illusion.” - Brandon Sanderson

In his lectures, Brandon Sanderson often touches upon plotting for novel writing. If you’re interested to dive in, please see his Youtube lecture:

As an illusionist, you have to hide your foreshadowing, but you do have to give a sense of PROGRESS. That’s is the most important part of plotting. The second most important part is PROMISES. Learn to make promises early in your story and fulfill them in an (unexpected) satisfying way throughout the story. Especially at the end.

As an author, you have control of your story. In terms of plot, that means you have control over:

  • Pacing (time)

  • The promise(s) you make

  • Great (character) moments

  • The sequence of events 

  • What’s happening to your character(s)

Your plot determines how your short story is paced and what promises your story is making to the reader.

Since you have limited space in a short, try to have one main plot and no more than 1-3 subplots or goals.

As said in the introduction, every writer has a different relationship with plotting. Stephen King dislikes plotting: “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible.”

Again, it’s up to you. I get what King is saying. He’s excited about figuring out where his characters lead him. He finds his plot after the fact. 

Personally, I think it’s good to have a clear view of the message you want to bring across with your story and what your endgame is. About 75% of the time, I work like this with my short stories. 

An example of a fully plotted short story of mine.

The other 25% results in stories without a preconceived ending. Writing these can be fun too. 

An example of a short story of mine without a preconceived ending.

So: experiment, see what works for you. There is no one correct way to write a story. Articles like this serve to keep you on track when you’re lost in writing your story.


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What Makes an Interesting Plot?

“The development of relationships creates plot.” - Anne Lamott

First of all, in what ways can you draw readers in?

  • Main characters you like and care about

  • Great interaction

  • Interesting premise

  • Banter

  • Exciting promises

  • Wonderful world building

Can you think of more reasons? These can be really helpful in designing your story.

Find out what each character cares most about in the world because then you will have discovered what's at stake. Find a way to express this discovery in action, and then let your people set about finding or holding onto or defending whatever it is. But something must be at stake or you will have no tension and your readers will not tum the pages. - Anne Lamott

Characters, relationships, and growth. Those three elements to me are the most important to create an interesting plot. Build a premise and play around with these elements to create your plot.

How to Plot Successfully

“I have an idea of where a story is going to end before I [start writing]. I’ll even write a very rough outline of the last scene or the last chapter, so I know where everyone’s going to end up and where the story is going to finish. I read some books and they’re just meandering and trying to find their ending, and I like for my characters to have a destination. [I leave] some room for wiggling, and for characters to interact organically with their environment or each other. I don’t plot heavily, but I definitely know where the story is going to end up, and that’s necessary for me. I want to avoid what [the TV show] “Lost” did, which was to make it up as they went along.” - Hugh Howey

In your story, you make promises to your reader, usually at the beginning. You want twists and turns but you don’t want to disappoint the reader by turning the story into something different by the end. At the end of your story, you want to make sure you fulfill the promises you made to the reader.

The middle part of your story can be tricky. It depends on how you write. As an outliner, I advise you to plot the middle of your story, which is usually difficult for writers to keep interesting. 

Discovery writers have trouble with their endings, while outliners have difficulty with the middle. (Usually).

Have your ‘solution’ - your ending - in mind and write it out. Put your characters in motion to steer them towards that ending.

How do I plot my short stories?

  • I start with my story idea and build a premise

  • Then I think of some promises I’d like to make

  • I think about what insights I want my main character(s) to have at the end

  • I come up with a route my character(s) have to walk on to reach that end

  • I think of ways to make that route as interesting as possible to my readers

  • I map out the route in scenes and create bulletpoints of important character moments, clues, insights, and progression in the story

  • Then I write!

So, there you have it. I hope these tips are helpful in plotting your short stories. Let me know how it goes!

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